Northern Ireland's Troubles: 
Anxious, Depressed, and Hopeless Youth

November 5th 2018

This is East Belfast, where memories of terror converge with every day life. PTSD is treacherous in Northern Ireland, and mental health is spiraling down fast. Persistently high suicide rates, among Europe’s worst, join a set of staggering data about those entering adulthood: half of 16-25 year olds suffer mental illness, two-thirds feel stressed and a full third feel helpless. Post-war trauma, hardened into society decades after Catholics and Protestants ended their deadly conflict, is a leading cause of their mood and anxiety disorders. Yet nearly 80 percent of those suffering worry about the stigma of seeking treatment in a divided society that calls for public displays of strength, if not bravado. The isolation led to more suicides in the past twenty years than the total death toll from the protracted 30-year civil war.

Throughout the country's velvety green expanse and the peacock-colored seascape that wraps around it, Catholics and Protestants live parallel lives: they have their own hospitals, their own leisure centers, their own shops, their own schools (less than 10 percent integrated) and of course, their own narratives. War memorials, some large and menacing, dot every city, town and hamlet. Enormous billboards show graphic images of beatings, crowds caught in tear gas, and fallen martyrs. From bus stops to sports fields, the messaging is simple: you belong with your people.

Consider Patrick, 23, from a poor Catholic enclave in Protestant East Belfast. With a freshly minted engineering degree, he’s anxious to push outside his insular community. It’s “just oppressive” he says. Catholics wouldn’t dare cross the street into a Protestant neighborhood, nor would Protestants ever venture into Catholic territory. His neck tightens as he recounts when thugs cracked open his father’s scull with a hammer. Fearful that he'll suffer an attack himself, the young redhead tries to conceal any telltale sign he’s Catholic: “Patrick is a dead giveaway so sometimes I use the name Paul.” 

Northern Ireland’s leading arts center, the MAC, has devoted this entire year to mental illness awareness and outreach, deftly pushing through prickly issues of denial by fusing poetry, painting, film and music with mental illness. An afternoon visit by a class of young schoolboys draws some self-conscious giggles, but the focus on youth is critical, contend curators. 

“Depression?” a taxi driver repeats the question as he responds. “My friend, a stone mason, says he’s been really busy. Mostly engraving tombstones for young boys who committed suicide.”


Want to change perceptions? Examine Northern Ireland’s challenges through innovative works at Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast and their Lighthouse Project, which works to de-stigmatize mental health in adults. See the Prince’s Trust for the surveys of mental health among youth and at-risk adult populations. Learn about ways you can offer support and on-the-ground assistance in Ireland and other post-war societies.

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Sandwiched between apartment buildings in a Northern Ireland public housing complex, three murals connected by their depiction of the Troubles and the symbols of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. Such permanent public displays are commonplace in the area, as residents must inevitably confront their peoples’ sordid history.